Debt as a Barrier to Reentry: Jonathan O’Neill’s Story
Jonathan O’Neill, a humble and soft-spoken man, is 46 years old and the father of fourteen children. He has been incarcerated since 2012 and currently resides at a transitional center where he works and takes various classes to prepare for his release that is set for Spring 2016. He is currently responsible for paying child support for seven of his children, which mostly consists of reimbursing the state for public assistance that was given to the children’s mothers. His other seven children are either grown or fully supported by their mothers.
When the time comes for Jonathan to be released, he will have as much as $45,000 in back child support, a suspended driver’s license, and the stigma of a criminal record. His story demonstrates how child support debt and its associated consequences can create significant barriers for people reentering society from prison.
The Debt Begins
Jonathan was just 19 years old when had his first run-in with the law. A joyride with a friend in a stolen car not only cost him his freedom, but also led his then girlfriend to seek Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to take care of their child. Like many incarcerated persons, Jonathan found out the hard way that he owed child support to the state as reimbursement for public assistance, and that his time behind bars did not delay responsibility to pay the state back. The 18-month prison sentence he received resulted in thousands of dollars in arrears accruing by the time he was released.
This debt made him angry and he refused to pay the state back for the public assistance given to his girlfriend.
Jonathan had his next two children with another woman. Though they lived together, this girlfriend also began receiving TANF apart from him knowing it. His child support arrears grew to $8,000 during this time because he was not paying the state for the public assistance it was providing for his children. Additionally, none of the money he spent to take care of his children while they lived together counted toward his growing child support debt because it was considered unofficial support since payments were not being made to the state as a reimbursement for public assistance. This led to a fall-out with his girlfriend and made him grow even more angry and rebellious toward the child support system over the next few years.
Jonathan explains, “I was mad at the mothers for doing this, so I neglected paying. I would take care of the children in my home, but I didn’t want to pay the state back. I had a rebellious spirit and felt like I was the father and I’m doing it how I want to.”
By the age of 27, Jonathan had five children from two mothers and over $14,000 in child support arrears. Having difficulty finding a job with his felony conviction, he began selling drugs to earn money. He was eventually caught with cocaine in 1999 and sentenced to 10 years on probation. Nine years later in 2008, he violated his conditions of probation by testing positive for marijuana, and he was sent to a Probation Detention Center (PDC) for 90 days.
A Turning Point
During his time in the PDC, Jonathan reflected upon the words a judge spoke to him in 2005: “You have so much in arrears, you will die owing the state money.” These words haunted him, and he wanted to make sure this did not prove true.
Upon release from the PDC in 2008, Jonathan became involved with a church that was located directly across the street from the PDC. It was through his involvement there that he experienced a spiritual transformation and became determined to earn an honest living. However, despite his earnest desire to find legitimate work, he struggled to find a job for eight months.
“I waited eight months and still I had no job. I got letters from the state threatening to lock me up for a whole year for non-payment of child support. I was tempted to sell drugs again. However, I chose to depend on God and He came through. I started painting at the church for no money. One day, God brought a man from the church who gave me a job at Food Lion because he was leaving.”
Jonathan gained skills as a meat cutter and worked consistently from 2009-2012 at stores such as Food Lion, Food Depot, and Piggly Wiggly, even earning employee of the quarter at his first store. During this period, he paid the full amount of his child support order each month plus a percentage of his arrears, amounting to $566 per month. He was determined to pay off his debt and make sure that he would not die owing money to the state
“I would have paid all of this debt at one time if I could,” says Jonathan, but at this point he was nowhere close to being able to do this. Instead, he paid what he could little-by-little. As a result, his hard work and determination enabled him to reduce his arrears by thousands of dollars.
Jonathan was heading down the right track.
In the summer of 2012, Jonathan and his fiancé were scraping by to pay the bills. Desperate for a way to earn extra cash, he discovered that he was able to win quick cash through gambling.
“I got addicted to playing gambling machines for cash money. I started losing money and got behind on rent. I didn’t want to face my children after not being able to pay, and I thought I could gamble to get the money.”
The day came when Jonathan gambled away money that he needed to pay his family’s rent. Upon losing, he panicked and snatched the money from a manager at the gambling center. For his rash actions, he was charged with robbery by snatching and was sentenced to prison for the second time.
“I’ve been in prison for two years and three months now. The state just sent me two letters for two different cases and I owe a total of $45,308 in arrears ($18,209 non-TANF arrears and $27,099 TANF arrears). It’s discouraging. I’m in prison – what do they expect me to do?”
Georgia is one of three states that does not allow inmates to earn money while working in prison, leaving him no way to pay his debt while incarcerated. However, now that he is at a transitional center, Jonathan has the ability to work, earn money, and have some earnings withheld to pay child support.
He is currently working at Arko Veal Meat Co. earning $8.50 per hour and working 26 hours per week. This work enables him to have $389 withheld from his paycheck every month to go toward paying child support.
Barriers to Reentry
While Jonathan’s time in the transitional center is helping to prepare him for reentry, he will face new challenges upon release. His home is far from the transitional center where he currently resides, which means that he will lose his present job and have to look for another one. He tried to transfer to a transitional center closer to home in order to find a job that he could keep upon release, but he was denied that opportunity. Still, he is hopeful that he will be able to get his old job back at Food Depot when the time comes to be released.
If this opportunity does not work out, his plan is to try to get a job at a different grocery store called Harvey’s. The manager at this store has hired individuals with convictions before, which gives him hope that he can work there, too. He would earn around $10 an hour as a meat cutter.
Even once Jonathan is able to secure a job, he still faces the challenge of commuting to work daily due to his suspended driver’s license. His license will only be reinstated by paying a sum that is twice the amount of his current child support order of $566, in addition to paying the normal monthly order.
“When the child support agent firmly stated that the amount I pay to get my license reinstated does not include what is coming out of my check, I hung my head. I thought, ‘Man, I can’t do this.’”
This sum of $1,698 is simply too much for him to pay while trying to pay rent, bills, and other living expenses.
Jonathan tried to arrange an agreement to make a partial payment in order to get his license back at an earlier point in time: “I told the agent, ‘Ma’am, I really need a license. Can I make a partial payment?’ She said no and told me that the judge ordered me to pay the full amount. She then said that we could get it modified, but that it would cost $300 just to go before the judge. I told her I can’t come up with it.”
He estimates that it will take him a year of full-time work at the grocery store before he will be able to pay to have his driver’s license reinstated. For now, he plans to get to work by having his fiancé, who works a full-time job as a night-shift nurse assistant, or his adult son drive him there.
Jonathan has a sincere desire to do whatever it takes to support his kids, which he demonstrated during the three years leading up to his incarceration. He simply lacks the money needed to have his license reinstated because it must go toward meeting his family’s basic living expenses.
“Having a driver’s license would not only be my way to work, but it would also help out with my duties as a husband and father around our home. My son and daughter are starting Kindergarten and Pre-K and my fiancé works from 11 pm to 8 am, so I will have to take them to school before I go to work.
For now, he is determined to make the best use of his time in the transitional center as he prepares for his reentry. He expresses an air of freedom and hope that did not exist earlier in his life, despite being encumbered by debt. He knows what it looks like to fully embrace his roles as a responsible father and citizen, and he plans to continue down this path once he is released.